The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1180

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Saints in Their Ox-Hide Boat is a book-length dramatic monologue that owes much to both the traditions of epic poetry and the traditions of hagiography, or the study of saints’ lives. The speaker of the poem is Saint Brendan the Navigator, who is relating the tale of his famous voyage that may have taken him as far as North America. Brendan tells his story to a young scribe, who sets down his words. The interplay between Brendan’s story and his discursive comments to the scribe constitutes an ironic commentary on the poem itself, which is both the history of a voyage and the history of the poem’s composition. The title of the poem refers to the voyage made by a group of Irish monks led by Brendan on a type of pilgrimage called, alternately, “white martyrdom” or “blue martyrdom,” as Galvin explains in his introduction to the poem. A “white martyrdom” was a pilgrimage by a monk in the general sense, while a “blue martyrdom” was specifically a pilgrimage by sea. Abandoning their monastic lives and “every heart-softening face,” the monks in the poem embark on a sea voyage in an ox-hide boat called a curragh. The title, with its plural “saints” and singular “boat,” suggests a substitution of the smaller community on the boat for the larger monastic community in Ireland.

Although the characters in the poem are monks, the poem is in many respects a poem of sailors and the sea. It begins with Brendan relating sailorly advice: how to embark safely on a sea voyage, what time of year is fortuitous for sailing, and what kind of sailors to take along. The last is of particular importance, and Brendan includes a long list of the different sorts of people one ought not to select. He wants, instead, “a few with sense/ long on muscle.” He tells the young scribe this, Brendan says, because he knows the boy was raised “among fields and hills.” Galvin really is conditioning the reader, however, to understand the demands of the sea and to illustrate Brendan’s thought process as he begins to assemble his crew. Most of Galvin’s readers, like the young scribe, are not familiar with the nautical concerns Brendan describes. Galvin wants to make clear, as he said of the monks in his poem, that “these men were both religious contemplatives and hardy sailors.” Like all good poets, Galvin creates his own ideal readers by educating them about his subject.

Preparations for the voyage, the “blue martyrdom,” occupy a significant portion of the poem and provide many comic moments. The sailors are a superstitious lot and are quick to interpret natural occurrences as good or bad signs that will affect when they depart. For example, on the first attempt to leave, Owen, the most superstitious of the sailor-monks, interprets a dream about a flock of sheep on a hill. He questions Martin, the monk who had the dream, about whether the sheep were going up the hill or down, since the former—according to Owen—would mean good luck for a journey, while the latter would spell bad luck. Brendan mordantly observes that “next he’d be interpreting our sneezes.” After discussing several other omens, including the crow of a rooster and an upset chair, Owen announces, “—No good will come of our dipping a single oar”; the trip is postponed. The next day, one of the sailors, Diarmuid, sees a hopping raven, considered a good omen. Brendan is hopeful, but then Conor tells of hearing a wren, which Owen believes cancels the good omen. After much discussion, the trip is again postponed. On the third day, one of the monks boards the boat from the left side, an act that Owen believes will bring terribly bad luck, but Brendan insists that they leave and even threatens them with physical violence.

The actual journey, when it finally begins, is decidedly not like other great epic sea journeys, and it contrasts particularly with the Odyssey. Homer’s epic is filled with mythical creatures: Circe, Cyclops, Scylla, Charybdis, and gods and goddesses in human form. By contrast, Brendan’s description of his voyage is pointedly realistic, and he seems more interested in relating the practical concerns of embarking on such a voyage than he is in relating the spiritual dimension of it. Once again, Galvin uses the character Owen and his superstition to contrast with Brendan’s common sense. When the monks hear seals barking in the fog one day, Owen wrings his hands, crying that it is the “howling and slobbering” of damned souls. Brendan’s realistic attitude is an important counter to Owen’s superstition, because the latter’s ideas often “found soft nests in his brothers’/ minds.” Through contrast to Owen, it is clear why Brendan has become the leader of a growing group of monks. Owen is more closely allied to the pagan era fast receding into the past, while Brendan is helping to found the Christian future of Ireland.

Throughout the journey, natural phenomena undercut the supernatural. The monks witness an island floating in the air, for example, but Brendan correctly interprets it as “another trick of the sea.” (Galvin provides a few explanatory notes to his poem, and he explains this natural phenomenon as an atmospheric disturbance called the Hillingar effect.) Often, the conflict between natural and supernatural explanations leads to comedy. For example, Owen tells the other monks about the magical clay on the island of Inishdhugan that has the ability to drive away the lice that have been plaguing them. The monks land and barter with Dhugan, the island’s chief. They sprinkle the clay about the boat liberally, only to discover that it does not work at all; indeed, Brendan suspects that the clay made the lice “double their coupling.” Similarly, Owen sees yellow eyes glaring at them from an iceberg and screams that Brendan has brought them “where souls/ are conducted after death.” Brendan considers joking (“I hadn’t recalled dying”), but instead responds with the measured explanation that the yellow eyes are those of an owl.

Along with the humor, Galvin provides realistic descriptions of what such a voyage must have been like. Even as readers laugh at the monks with their lice or at Owen’s superstitions, they realize the discomfort and fear the sailors must experience. Galvin provides some graphic details about their life on the curragh: The monks eat their meals in the dark so they will not see “what’s already eating what we’re supposed to eat.” More often, they do not even have food and must subsist on very small rations. Brendan prefers the days when the sea is rough, because only then do the seasick monks not complain of their hunger. Sickness runs rampant. One monk, Diarmuid, is swept overboard, and even Brendan finally succumbs to a feverish vision. Along with these obvious stresses on the monks is the stress of the mundane “memorizing the same/ five faces over and over” as they float day after day on the sea.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 751

Saints in Their Ox-Hide Boat has two main antecedents, one of which was the book The Brendan Voyage (1978), written by Tim Severin about his re-creation of Saint Brendan’s journey in the curragh. Some of the realistic details of Galvin’s poem come from this source. The more important of the sources was a historical document, the Voyage of St. Brendan, which contains the legends, written in Latin, that the Brendan of the poem dismisses as exaggeration. That text gave Galvin material that his more realistic Brendan could deride and caution his young scribe to avoid. The Latin text probably also provided Galvin with inspiration for the many figures of speech he includes that are typical of writings about saints’ lives and of epic poetry. He uses hyphenated epithets that are nearly Homeric in their intensity; warriors are “iron-chested ones,” for example, and the sea is a “seal pasture where every angel-haunted/ abbey stone sinks out of memory.”

Galvin’s poetic imagery is likewise rich, and his use of metaphor noteworthy. Within the space of a few lines, Brendan describes humans as no more than a “clutch of fish bones,” describes the Irish islands as a “stone beehive,” and discusses his monastic vows as a forgoing of the “lit/ eye of a woman and the poured-milk/ turn of her neck.” In just these few metaphors, Galvin illuminates Brendan’s theology, the Irish geography, and the devotion required when one takes monastic vows.

Although the poem is nominally a dramatic monologue, and the entire poem is related by Brendan to the young scribe at the monastery, Galvin energizes his poem with exchanges between Brendan and others. At several points Brendan directly addresses the young scribe, giving his narrative a conversational tone. He reminds the scribe repeatedly to write the story down just as he tells it, with no embellishment. When commenting on the younger monks who accompanied him on the voyage, Brendan takes a moment to comment on the scribe’s youth as well. On other occasions, Brendan relates dialogue and disputes between the various monks, particularly his ongoing dispute with Owen. Galvin indicates reported language without quotation marks, instead using dashes to distinguish them from Brendan’s other description. The trip to the island of Inishdhugan is one such extended passage. The description of the monks’ interaction with the canny old pagan, Dhugan, is notable for the amount of reported language given by Brendan. The passage has Dhugan asking riddles of the monks, followed by their often comic responses:

—Well, riddle me this then. I movewhat cannot move itself. Though none cansee me, all bow down to me. What am I?—God! One of the brothers whispered behind me.—Yes, God! the others encouraged.—Almighty God, I answered smiling atthe thought I’d cornered him now.—The wind, he answered with a smirk.

By having Brendan quote the other characters, as in this passage, Galvin is able to give his poem a sense of immediacy without violating the rules of the dramatic monologue form.

Similarly, the poem culminates in a conversation just as Saint Brendan has arrived off the coast of North America. In the only truly supernatural moment of the poem, an angel appears to Brendan, and Galvin intersperses the monk’s words with those of the heavenly visitor. The angel, though Brendan fears he may be a devil, provides a vision of the future. He forecasts Irish warfare and division, the potato famine, and the great emigration of the Irish to North America. They will need “the sanctuary of places like this,” the angel says. This section of the poem is the most technically complex, for Brendan relates the conversation with the angel but also tells the reader what his thoughts were at the time. Because Brendan did not know if the angel could “listen inside as well as out,” the scene is very tense, and the interspersing of the dialogue with Brendan’s thoughts dramatizes his inner conflicts, particularly at the conclusion of the poem when the angel shakes him, shouting “—Say it, man! Out with it!” This suggests that the Angel does know what Brendan is thinking. Galvin indents Brendan’s response both to draw attention to the great statement of faith that follows and to provide a fitting sense of closure to the poem:

O LordI have lovedthe Glory ofYour house

The poem ends with no punctuation, as if to say that Brendan’s hymn of praise to God does not cease but rises upward forever.